By Christopher Fox Graham and Michele Bradley
Amarya Hamilton, one of the co-owners of Angel Valley Retreat Center, spoke Wednesday, Jan. 27, about the center’s involvement in the fatal sweat lodge incident that claimed three lives in October.
Three people died at the center southwest of Sedona following a sweat lodge ceremony at the end of the weeklong Spiritual Warrior retreat led by California motivational speaker James Arthur Ray.
Speaking on behalf of herself and her husband, co-owner Michael Hamilton, Amarya Hamilton said that they have stayed in the background since the incident. They are not in direct contact with Ray, but have been speaking with the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office since the incident.
“It is important to communicate with them,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said the sweat lodge ceremony is for healing and contemplation. The way it is conducted determines its intensity.
The Hamiltons did not observe or take part in the October sweat lodge, nor have they been invited to participate in any of Ray’s retreats or events, she said.
Sweat lodges traditionally consist of four rounds with four to six hot stones brought into the lodge in each round, Hamilton said, yielding a total of around 20 stones.
Ray’s ceremony consisted of eight rounds, according to YCSO, and there were around 50 stones in the lodge’s pit.
Angel Valley contracted with a local Native American man to build the most recent lodge in 2008. The man who designed and supervised construction and his relative who built the lodge both have extensive experience constructing sweat lodges, according to Hamilton.
These two Native American men conducted several ceremonies in the same structure with no problems, Hamilton said.
The same blankets and tarps have been used in all sweat lodge ceremonies at Angel Valley since 2005 and placed in storage between ceremonies, Hamilton said.
The most recent lodge was built in 2008 to Ray’s specifications of holding up to 75 people. It had been used four times by other groups, she said.
Deputies investigated the site Oct. 8 and 9 and took samples of the stones, soil and coverings. Afterward, Hamilton said she and Angel Valley staff dismantled the lodge, burned the willow branch frame and shaped the stones into a heart-shaped memorial on the site. She said some of the retreat participants wanted to be a part of it.
“We wanted to start clearing energetically,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said she has had continuous contact with the mother of victim Kirby Brown and the wife of victim James Shore, first-time retreat attendees who both died Oct. 8.
Hamilton said she was well acquainted with the third victim, Lizabeth Neuman, who had been coming to Angel Valley for seven years. Hamilton said she was in almost daily contact with Neuman’s daughter until she died at Flagstaff Medical Center on Oct. 18.
“Of all the people, we knew Liz [Neuman] the best,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said that she feels the incident has not raised concerns about the Sedona area metaphysical community.
“We can only grow from this, learn from this,” Hamilton said. “You try to be a better facilitator. Always check with yourself if it doesn’t feel right. Listen to yourself. If it helps people think and be aware then that’s actually a good thing.”
Hamilton said the retreat center had one group cancel a reservation the week following the incident but have had no other cancellations.
Angel Valley held a memorial service Nov. 1, attended by 60 people, almost all local
residents, she said.
“Sweat lodges have been done for thousands of years all over the world,” Hamilton said, adding that they are performed by many cultures.
Angel Valley and Ray were named as defendants in a lawsuit filed by the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council on Nov. 2. The suit alleges use of the lodge violates an 1868 peace treaty with the Lakota by dishonoring their Native American heritage.
Several more lawsuits have been filed against Ray by survivors and victims’ families.
Hamilton said she is not worried about pending or possible lawsuits against Angel Valley.
“In this American society, lawsuits are part of life,” she said. “We do feel it’s wise to be cautious in what we say and what we do,” she said. “Individual healing for people is delayed when all the
focus and energy goes into a lawsuit. For me, that is a sad thing.”
YCSO has referred all inquiries to the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office, which is not releasing any information pending the results of the homicide investigation. No charges have yet been filed.
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